After discussing his own work in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives with students in his Humanities classes, Dr. Elon Lang realized that despite his students’ interest in what he suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few had actually visited the Ransom Center and even fewer had contemplated doing research here.
Lang made it his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially The University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials.
With these goals in mind, Lang developed “Drama in the Archives,” a Humanities Honors course he taught in fall 2014.
During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.
He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.
After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts.
Below, undergraduates describe the research they conducted and the discoveries they made while working with collections at the Ransom Center. They show how, with creativity and a bit of support, they were able to create a singular experience for themselves at the Ransom Center that greatly enhanced their undergraduate education.
Maureen Clark is a third-year government and Liberal Arts Honors student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the course, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Clark shares her experience in the class.
After reading Samuel Beckett’s seminal work Waiting for Godot I was at a loss. I felt that there existed some sort of lack in the work (or at least my understanding of it). I felt that I needed to understand Beckett to understand the play. I entered the Harry Ransom Center keen on unearthing the history of an avant-garde playwright known for his works in the Theatre of the Absurd. What I found waiting for me were letters, journals, and manuscripts. As I looked through the letters, hoping to parse out some personal connection with Beckett and how he felt about Waiting for Godot, I felt like a detective. I was going through someone else’s mail, piecing together fragments from the past: postcards with aging purple portrait stamps and shiny photo fronts of exotic places where sepia had begun to creep in through the corners and long letters grieving the losses of beloved friends.
As I looked through his correspondence and journals, I learned that Beckett was a member of the French Resistance. He lost multiple friends and allies on the battlefield and in concentration camps. One such friend, a fellow member of the Resistance and the man that convinced him to join, was Alfred Péron. Beckett chose to live permanently in France, abandoning his home nation of Ireland for two main reasons. The first was the overwhelming sense of guilt he felt at the loss of his friends, and the second was to fulfill his final promise to Alfred: that he would take care of his wife, Maya “Mania” Lézine Péron, if anything were to happen to Péron during the war. Beckett kept his word and became close long-term friends with Mania, writing her often and discussing anything from vacation plans to manuscript ideas.
In one letter on June 12, 1969, Beckett provided a mimeograph from Edith Fournier, a former student of Péron, in which she explained the meaning of Godot. He explained to Péron that with the exception of a few “misconceptions” Edith’s analysis was “remarkable.” Finally, I was beginning to unearth Beckett’s understanding of the play, which was no small feat. Beckett is even famous for having said “[i]f I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play.”
Rather than focusing on describing the play through an Existential lens or even describing it as a piece for the Theatre of the Absurd, Fournier describes the play through a Nietzschean lens. Fournier does not explicitly cite Nietzsche, but focuses on themes found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For example, Fournier discusses the meaning of the play to be waiting, not Godot. Moreover, Fournier wrote, the reason the characters wait in the play is similar to a religious waiting for the afterlife: it is habitual and eternally repeating.
As a result, I pointed my external research toward a Nietzschean nihilistic reading of the text. I was pleasantly surprised when I found readings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that were mirrored in Godot and Fournier’s analysis of it. Even more so, I found allusions to Nietzsche in Beckett’s journals, although never explicitly named. Much like his comments on Godot, Beckett’s journals and correspondence were vague and brief, but the research and meaning that I gleaned from them at the Ransom Center were comprehensive and clear.
Acclaimed novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje converses with writer Geoff Dyer in a Harry Ransom Lecture on Tuesday, March 31, at 7 p.m. The event takes place in the Jessen Auditorium, in Homer Rainey Hall, across the plaza from the Ransom Center.
Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje’s work also encompasses poetry, memoir, and film. His Booker Prize–winning novel The English Patient was adapted into an Academy Award–winning film. His other works include his memoir Running in the Family, four collections of poetry, the non-fiction book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, and his novels In the Skin of a Lion, Anil’s Ghost, Divisadero, and The Cat’s Table.
Ondaatje discusses his novels and poetry and his book on film editing, as well as research, editing, adapting books to film, and film as an art itself.
Audience members will be able to ask questions, and a reception and book signing follow at the Ransom Center.
The event is free and open to the public. Priority entry is available to Ransom Center members (one seat per membership card) who arrive by 6:20 p.m. Members arriving after 6:30 p.m. will join the general queue. Complimentary parking for Ransom Center members is available at the University Co-op garage at 23rd and San Antonio streets.
This program is presented by the University Co-op.
Attendees may enter to win Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, as well as a copy of his book of poetry, Handwriting.
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The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded the Ransom Center a $18,900 grant to preserve and enhance access to the Ransom Center’s non-commercial sound recordings. The grant allows the Ransom Center to complete a preservation survey of more than 13,000 archival sound recordings to establish and document preservation digitization priorities, processes, and standards to enhance access to these research materials.
“To make the most prudent and productive use of resources available, the Ransom Center must understand the condition of its sound recordings, as well as their intellectual and research value, in order to make preservation decisions based on clear principles that will expand current and inform future reformatting, stabilizing, and cataloging efforts,” said Ransom Center Director Steve Enniss. “This support from the NEH is powerful validation of the Center’s efforts.”
A majority of the recordings are unique and were made for private, non-commercial use. The content varies widely but includes literary spoken word, conference proceedings, dictated notes and letters, field recordings, structured interviews, lectures and readings, musical performances, radio broadcasts, rehearsals, telephone conversations, dictated drafts of writings, and even therapy sessions and psychic readings.
Recordings in the collection belong to some of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century’s most notable writers, artists, and performers including Stella Adler, Neal Cassady, Andre Dubus, David Douglas Duncan, Norman Bel Geddes, Spalding Gray, Denis Johnson, Ernest Lehman, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Gerard Malanga, David Mamet, Nicholas Ray, Ross Russell, David and Jeffrey Selznick, Anne Sexton, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Warren Skaaren, Ted Spagna, Gloria Swanson, and Leon Uris.
Of the more than 13,000 audio recordings cataloged in the Ransom Center’s Sound Recordings Collection database, 2,700 have been digitized and are available for streaming onsite in the Center’s Reading and Viewing Room.
A long-term goal is to place the Sound Recordings Collection database on the Ransom Center’s website, providing patrons access to existing sound recordings.
“In the 50 years since NEH’s founding, the Endowment has supported excellence in the humanities by funding far-reaching research, preservation projects and public programs,” said NEH Chairman William Adams. “The grants continue that tradition, making valuable humanities collections, exhibitions, documentaries, and educational resources available to communities across the country.”
Upon completion, the project will serve as a model for a follow-up project to survey the Ransom Center’s archival moving image materials.
Beginning Saturday, April 4, the Ransom Center increases its Saturday operating hours for its Reading and Viewing Room and will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The times are an increase from the Center’s prior Saturday hours of 9 a.m. to noon.
The Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room is an active place, facilitating the scholarly inquiry of researchers. In the past year, researchers from 46 states and 30 countries worked in the Reading and Viewing Room.
Patrons from Austin and Texas will benefit from the increased hours as will other researchers, including many of the Ransom Center’s fellowship recipients, 49 percent of whom travel from abroad to conduct research here.
The increased hours will provide additional opportunities for onsite use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, and other materials.
Information about using the collections, including establishing a research account, can be found online.
Students at The University of Texas have the opportunity to enhance their studies with the Ransom Center’s collections. Andrea Gustavson, PhD candidate in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, designed an entire class around the Ransom Center’s collections, and she writes about how the primary source materials enhanced the learning experience for her undergraduate students.
Emily Robinson is a rhetoric and writing and Plan I Honors senior in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the class, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Robinson shares her experience in the class.
The smell of books intoxicates me. And the sight of messy handwriting scrawled in angry slashes or jubilant swirls in a journal excites me more than I should probably admit. There’s just something about seeing how different people think as they write that fascinates me.
That said, you can only imagine how delirious I was to sit in a room where a wealth of author’s journals, drafts of iconic literary works, and other manuscripts were a mere click of the “Request Item” button away from laying in front of me. For me to read. And study. To put it lightly, any time that I spent in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room this past semester went far too quickly and resulted in far too many conversations starting with the words, “You’ll never guess what I saw today.” Because of my participation in Elon Lang’s class “Drama in the Archives,” I discovered I love research, especially the kind that involves poring over a writer’s abandoned early drafts and never-completed projects.
For most of the semester, I worked with the David Mamet papers, searching out different drafts of his drama Oleanna. After reading Oleanna in class, I was struck by the jolting ending of the play—three acts of increasingly hostile conversations between John and Carol (an inappropriate professor and vindictive student, respectively, at a fictional university) concluding in an intense scene of John beating Carol. The play just ends after the violence. The audience gets almost nothing but curtains and the unsettling feeling of having to applaud after witnessing a scene of physical abuse. I found this ending intriguing and decided to investigate its previous iterations in hopes of better understanding how the scene functions within the play as a whole. This took me to the Ransom Center, where I began piecing together Mamet’s earlier plans for the ending of Oleanna by reading his drafts.
During my investigation, I discovered that Mamet didn’t, in fact, originally intend to end Oleanna on that note of unresolved violence. Many of his drafts actually contain a conversation between John and Carol after he beats her. Most of my research focused on three drafts created between April 1991 and May 1992. These three drafts contain a conversation that shows Carol being sensitive to John’s emotional trauma after hurting her. She also then uses that moment as an opportunity to teach John about his abusive and exploitative nature. Mamet’s “Next to Last” draft (from May 1992) actually ends with Carol offering to help John (see Box 155, Folder 7, page 51).
Knowledge of this alternate ending furthered my understanding of Oleanna because it forced me to wonder about the purpose of only portraying violence and not including a scene of conflict resolution in the play. I don’t have any definitive answers for that question yet, but reading over Mamet’s drafts and views on art gave me a step in the right direction.
Overall, my time at the Ransom Center was a rewarding and exciting experience. In the future, I intend to use the Ransom Center whenever I can—especially if it means reading through an author’s diaries and drafts.
Hermione Lee is a well-known biographer of literary figures, admired for scrupulously researching her subjects. Her recent book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), details the life of the late-blooming author as Lee discovered her in the archives.
Lee will speak at the Ransom Center about her experiences pursuing subjects through their archives on Wednesday, April 8 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is first-come first-served.
In anticipation of Lee’s visit, Cultural Compass reached out to her about her work and research.
How do you choose your subjects for a biography?
I choose my subjects out of a passionate admiration for their work, a desire to communicate that admiration and interest in their lives as broadly as possible, and a sense that I haven’t yet read the biography I want to read about them–so had better write it myself.
During her lifetime Penelope Fitzgerald wrote three biographies. What was it like applying the same act of analysis to her?
I would have liked to take a leaf out of her book and write a very slim, cryptic, suggestive book about her, since she felt it “insulted the reader to explain too much.” But as I was writing the first biography of her and as she is not a mainstream, popular writer, I felt I needed to write at more length and with more detail than she would have done herself. However, my motives were the same as the motives which led her to write biography: a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the heart and meaning of her life and work. Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, an unjustly neglected early-twentieth-century English woman poet, was particularly in my mind when I was writing my biography.
There are more than 800 footnotes in your book. Is that average or unusual in a biography?
Some biographers put their footnotes on line, some don’t have many, some have many more. I like readers to know where the facts have come from.
Fitzgerald was a private person. How does that make the work of a biographer more challenging?
There were times when I felt she would have resisted what I was doing, had she still been alive, but there were also times when I hoped that the attention I was drawing to her writing would have pleased her. Many of her secrets remain with her, and I admire and appreciate that, even though it can also be frustrating.
Can you talk about your research in the Ransom Center’s Penelope Fitzgerald archive? What insight did her personal papers provide?
My work in the archive was invaluable to me. It contains many of her manuscripts, letters to readers and publishers, notebooks, and first drafts. I understood her writing much better-particularly her brilliant use of sources for her novels–when I had worked in the archive.
Were you drawn to a particular item in the collection?
I was very moved by the last, unfinished story in her notebook, which ends, like so much of her life, with a mystery and a secret. I end my biography with it.
You are working on a biography of Tom Stoppard. Have you worked with the Stoppard papers in the Ransom Center’s collections?
I am starting work in the archive now, with great excitement and anticipation.
James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.
The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:
We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.
Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.
Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.
Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:
He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.
Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.
The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.
With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.
Matthew McFrederick visited the Harry Ransom Center’s Reading Room as an international fellow from the University of Reading. He conducted research for his thesis, “Staging Beckett in London: Constructing Performance Histories of Samuel Beckett’s Drama.”
McFrederick’s research is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded “Staging Beckett” project, which is a joint research project involving the University of Reading, the University of Chester, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This project will study the impact of Beckett’s drama in theater culture and theater practice in the UK and Ireland from 1995 to present day and develop a publicly accessible online database of productions of Beckett’s drama in the UK and Ireland.
McFrederick’s thesis will catalog and analyze significant productions of Beckett’s drama in London and chart the development of Beckettian performance in a number of London theaters such as the Royal Court, the National Theatre, and Riverside Studios. During his time in the reading room, McFrederick, looked at material from the Center’s collections, including those of Samuel Beckett, Peter Glenville, and the English Stage Company.
McFrederick’s research was funded by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the International Placement Scheme.